SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule Toilet Leaks Will Force Astronauts to Wear Temporary “Underwear”

Alexandra Ferguson

New York (CNN Business) — Toilet problems aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule will leave a group of four astronauts without a bathroom option during their several-hour journey home from the International Space Station on board. of the nearly 13-foot-wide capsule this month.

Instead, the crew will have to rely on "underwear," Steve Stich, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, told reporters on Friday night.

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SpaceX first discovered a problem with its spacecraft's toilet last month while inspecting another Crew Dragon capsule. The company found that a tube used to funnel urine into a storage tank had come loose, and was causing a mess of hidden leaks under the floor of the capsule. It's a saga that, at this point, has affected all three spacecraft the company operates.

NASA did not say how long the four astronauts – NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide – will have to spend aboard their Crew Dragon capsule with an inoperable toilet. . So far, only two Crew Dragon ships have returned from the ISS with people on board, and the first of those trips took 19 hours, while the second only six.

The duration of the trip will depend on several factors, such as the orbital dynamics and the weather that affect the return trip, but "we are working to always try to minimize that time from undocking to landing and that is what we will do with this flight", Stitch added.

During SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission in September, which carried four people on the first all-tourist mission to orbit for three days, a problem with the toilet was first identified. Jared Isaacman, the commander and financier of the Inspiration4 mission, as it was called, told CNN Business last month that an alarm went off during the mission, alerting the crew to a problem with the toilet fan. He said he and his fellow passengers had to work with SpaceX controllers on the ground to fix the problem.

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The issue did not cause any serious problems for the Inspiration4 crew, nor were there any cases of bodily fluids leaking into the capsule. But after the Inspiration4 crew returned to Earth, SpaceX disassembled their spacecraft to further inspect the toilet problem.

“There is a storage tank that the urine is kept in and a tube that became disconnected or detached,” said William Gerstenmaier, a former NASA associate administrator who now works as SpaceX's chief of mission assurance. "That caused the urine not to go into the storage tank, but into the ventilation system."

The situation highlights how spacecraft that have flown all necessary test flights, been vetted and approved, and even completed missions, can still pose design risks.

Fans are used in spacecraft lavatories to create suction and control the flow of urine because, in the microgravity environment of space, waste can be shot in every possible direction.

In this particular case, the Inspiration4 crew didn't realize there was excrement floating around the cabin because the leak was still relegated to sealed areas under the floor, Gerstenmaier said.

SpaceX is working to clean up and fix the problem on the Inspiration4 spacecraft, which is called Resilience. A new Crew Dragon capsule, called Endurance, which is scheduled to carry another four astronauts to the ISS on Wednesday, will have the solution built in.

However, the group of four astronauts already on board the ISS was launched in April, before the toilet problems were discovered. Their capsule, the Crew Dragon Endeavor, has remained attached to the ISS, serving as a possible lifeboat and ready to take them home. And when the astronauts recently inspected the capsule, they found that the toilet was also leaking and there was evidence of urine seeping through the walls. But since they are still in space, they have no way to fix the problem immediately.

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The space station has its own toilets, so that won't be a problem while the astronauts are on board the orbiting lab.

But once they get back aboard their capsule and begin their return journey, which could happen as soon as this weekend, according to NASA, they'll have to rely on the interim underwear option.

The spacecraft should still be relatively safe to fly, although somewhat less comfortable than before.

SpaceX conducted a series of ground tests to ensure that the Crew Dragon's aluminum structure could withstand the leaked urine and that the substance had not become dangerously corrosive.

Basically, SpaceX researchers coated some metal parts with urine mixed with Oxone, the same substance used to remove ammonia from urine aboard the Crew Dragon, to see how it reacted with aluminum. They put it inside a chamber to mimic the vacuum of space, and found limited corrosion, Gerstenmaier said.

"We'll double check things, triple check things, and we've got a couple more samples that we'll pull out of the vaults and inspect," he said last week. "But we will be ready and we will make sure the crew is safe to come back."

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